Not so gullible after all

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Most people believe they're better-than-average drivers. They also believe that, while many others are taken in by advertising messages, they themselves remain immune to persuasion unless it's with the full consent of their rational and thoughtful selves. Charming delusions. But surely we're not left defenseless, and awareness of the persuasive intentions of advertising must provide some sort of skeptical buffer against the daily onslaught of commercial messages that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Enough so, argued the late free marketeer Jack Calfee, that the myth of the vulnerable consumer is just that, and advertising should be regulated as little as possible in order to allow its salutary effects to permeate the economy. In his book Fear of Persuasion, Calfee wrote:

Advertising seeks to persuade, and everyone knows it. The typical ad tries to induce a customer to do one thing—usually, buy a product —instead of a thousand other things. There is nothing obscure about this purpose or what it means for buyers. Consumers obtain immense amounts of information from a process in which the providers of information are blatantly self-interested and the recipients fundamentally skeptical.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is in the business of regulating advertising, happens to agree with Calfee about the protective effects of identifying persuasion for what it is. Which is one reason why it's recently clarified its guidelines on endorsements to require that bloggers and social media users disclose any pecuniary relationship with the makers of the products they're shilling for—even if free stuff is all they're getting for their efforts.

And the issue of whether and when young kids understand the persuasive nature of advertising is relevant to the decision of some European countries (e.g. Sweden, Norway) and one Canadian province (Quebec) to ban or restrict advertising aimed at kids below the ages of 12 or 13.

That seems a tad overprotective. A skeptical view of advertising likely occurs well before that age, all the more so, apparently, if one has older siblings. (Having had some myself, I can attest to the fact that older brothers and sisters routinely engage in communicative acts in which they are blatantly self-interested, offering plenty of practice in the jettisoning of one's gullibility.) Being the offspring of linguist parents who bring their work home too often might also help. My own daughter seemed to have the concept down pat by the age of four, judging from the following exchange with her (older) friend who was trying to get her to swap breakfast cereal with him:

Friend: Here. You should try my cereal. It's much better than your cereal. Let's trade.
Daughter: Naaah. That's just advertising.

But if indeed the mere detection of persuasive intent can arm you against some of advertising's effects, what we obviously want to know is: how? For example, you might assign a lower probability than you normally would that the source is being truthful, or you might peer at the message more carefully, finding the cracks in its arguments. You might notice richer implications on the basis of what's not being said. And so on. These all seem like fairly high-level processes of the sort that we might imagine would emerge fairly late in childhood and that might be computationally slow and vulnerable to processing overload.

And if the defensive effects of persuasion detection occur entirely at this higher level of reasoning and message evaluation, they may well be somewhat limited. What to make of the growing body of results pointing to extremely shallow, often unconscious routes to persuasion? Is awareness of persuasive intent only any good to us when we're engaging in thoughtful deliberation? Are we left nakedly un-armed when we're relying on more "mindless" mental processes?

It would seem not. A recent paper by Juliano Laran et al. (2011) suggests that resistance to persuasion can be triggered in a highly automatic and unconscious manner. The work builds on some interesting results involving commercial brands and implicit priming effects. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain cognitive or behavioral goals. Nifty results.

But brand names and logos, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they're not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—despite the fact that they're often designed with great care, we may normally take them to be primarily referential, much as any proper name might be. Slogans (or, as they say in the industry, taglines) are transparently persuasive according to the authors. Perhaps people react to these latter messages in knee-jerk reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.

Laran et al. found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study and then later take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they'd seen luxury-brand logos. But when subjects saw slogans (e.g. Save money. Live better.) instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury-brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.

(No doubt you're wondering whether all of the slogans used the imperative form, an obvious marker of directive speech acts. That was the case for fewer than half of the items. Other slogans included direct assertions (The best deals are always here) or definite descriptions (The good life at a great price). Unfortunately, the authors don't report whether the reverse priming effect was more striking for slogans appearing in the imperative form—would be an interesting question though.)

The reverse-psychology effect does seem to hinge on detecting the persuasive intent of the message rather than being rigidly tied to the type of stimulus. In another version of the study, if people were told to focus on evaluating the creativity of the slogans (presumably making their persuasive intent less salient), the reverse effect evaporated, and they now treated them just as they had the brand names; that is, the economy-brand slogans led to less spending than the slogans for luxury brands. And if the persuasive nature of brands was highlighted, the brand names triggered the reverse priming effect, just as the slogans had previously (It should be noted though, that this particular experiment presented the brand logos rather than just their names. Maybe this matters.)

In a particularly intriguing variation of the study, the researchers tested to see whether the defensive system could be activated via subliminal messaging. They showed subjects sentences such as "Don't waste your money" or "Quality lies above all." After each sentence, either the word "slogan" or the word "sentence" was flashed below perceptual thresholds. When the sentences had been identified neutrally as "sentence," subjects' spending decisions aligned with the content of the sentences. But when they were identified by the word "slogan," they showed a reverse priming effect—the mere activation of the construct of slogan (subliminally, no less) was enough to send them scurrying in the opposite direction.

It would seem then, that just as some of persuasion's effects can be found in streamlined automatic processes, so too can resistance to persuasion. But more generally, the study highlights the possibility that we're creatures for whom it's very important to quickly identify communicative intent, that we try to do so on the basis of whatever rough-and-ready cues there might be on hand, and that we automatically and unconsciously adjust the ways in which we process and respond to information depending on what we perceive that intent to be. The study brings to mind arguments made recently by Gergely Csibra, Gyorgy Gergely and Jozsef Topal to the effect that even very young infants can pick up on certain cues from adults about instructional intent, and that they adopt a particular cognitive stance when it seems to be present. In the pragmatics literature, we're used to talking about inferring communicative intent—but perhaps inference is not always necessary in order to identify intent.

On a more practical note, the study also provides a potential answer to a question that has been in my mind since I first heard about the implicit priming effects with Apple and Walmart logos: could you nudge yourself towards greater creativity or financial prudence by plastering the appropriate logos around your house or workspace or in your wallet? Perhaps not—you'd always be aware of your intent to persuade yourself. Maybe unconscious persuasion tactics are a bit like tickling: it doesn't work if you try to do it on yourself.

[For the record, I receive no payment or even free stuff from any of the companies mentioned in this post. Alas.]


  1. Slogans trigger resistance while logos slip through « Mind Hacks said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    […] Log covers a fascinating study that found that commercial logos unconsciously encourage brand-compliant […]

  2. Justin said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 12:42 am

    To practice the defense against "advertisement by study", many studies that don't confirm the kind of interesting effects you describe here are never published. So it would be interesting to know: How many studies confirm these effects, have they been replicated, and with what confidence?

    [js: Indeed, as always, interesting results, especially of the surprising or counter-intuitive variety, await replication and elaboration. Scientists take it for granted (I assume) that the latest hot new study is never the definitive last word, but an opening gambit inviting further exploration. But this is not always made clear to the general public, especially by many science journalists without a strong scientific background. To give some context to the current study, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that by now there are dozens of studies showing implicit priming effects on attitudes and behavior. Just a couple with brands that I know of, but the effect seems to generalize robustly to other stimuli, including simple words, images (e.g. faces of stereotyped social groups), even objects in the physical environment (a backback on the table apparently leads to more altruistic behavior than a briefcase) or tactile experiences (holding a cup of hot versus cold liquid). But the reverse priming effect seems novel, and this is the first study that I know about. But other possibly similar subliminally-triggered resistance effects have been found. For example, a 2008 study by Chartrand et al. found that people who were presented with subliminal images of relationship partners who were perceived as controlling and wanting them to achieve actually did less well on an intellectual task than those who were primed with images of partners who wanted them to have fun. But of course, the Laran et al. study I talked about, while suggestive and fascinating, can't fully be evaluated until there's a big enough body of evidence to a) replicate the effect and b) demonstrate the conditions under which it does and doesn't show up.]

  3. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 3:58 am

    Yes, I think children very early develop an instinct for things not being as they seem.
    1. They start off by exploring a physical world that is full of surprises (things that don't behave as they expect), so, although their life may seem to be an endless series of bumps and accidents, if you watch a bit more closely, they spend a lot of their time being careful and mistrustful of things.
    2. Trickery and deception enter their vocabulary at a very early stage. Well, of course, we tease them from the get-go. And then one day I was in the cafe with my daughter and had her on my lap and gave her a bit of biscuit – and she held it out for me to take a bite, which I did (I can't quite remember of it was the first time she'd done that, but it was a fairly new development in itself). And immediately, she held it out again, and when I went to bite it, she snatched it away and giggled. I think it was a week or two before her first birthday. Of course, by now, at 17 months, she is operating in a whole different league of deviousness ;-)
    3. We've read the Gruffalo to her (in 2 languages) I don't know how many thousand times by now. And of course, the real hero of the Gruffalo stories isn't the Gruffalo (who's a bit on the dopey side) but the little brown mouse, who tricks all his predators into leaving him alone – just by talking to them. How much of that she has taken in I can't tell, but children's stories are full of tricky characters, and whether to take something at face value or not seems to be a skill they begin developing well before they can talk – and in a holistic way that sizes up both linguistic and non-linguistic inputs as part of the same game.
    On the other hand, talking about advertising and logos, she's an absolute sucker for anything with the Hello Kitty cat on it ;-)

  4. Dan Hemmens said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:57 am


    Is it possible that, rather than the slogans having a "reversed" effect on consumers (which would imply that luxury brands at least have got a lot of problems on their hands) they actually have exactly the effect intended.

    Presumably when a supermarket puts up a sign saying "Save money, live better" that supermarket is not literally attempting to exhort you to spend less money in their shop (that would be counterproductive) rather they are trying to convince you that *by spending money in their shop* you are saving money. Luxury brand slogans are presumably designed to do the opposite, to make you want to choose their more expensive products over somebody else's less expensive products. The aim of a luxury brand slogan is to maximize the profit from an individual *item sale* whereas the aim of a budget brand slogan is to maximize the profit from an individual *customer*.

    Or something, as ever I should point out that I have no knowledge of either linguistics or economics.

  5. Chris Maloof said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    The participants in these studies were all undergraduate business students, so the range of age and education must be very small. Given the subject matter, that seems relevant, to put it mildly — even ignoring their demographic similarity, they probably take classes on advertising. Julie, I think you should have mentioned that; I wouldn't be remotely comfortable applying these results to any other population.

  6. John Roth said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    If I understand what you're saying, the advertising business has to be the biggest scam on the planet: anything they put out is countered by consumer skepticism, consequently the money spent on advertising is wasted.

    This isn't to say that individual studies are wrong, but I'd be really surprised if there wasn't a whopping big context problem with applying them to the real world.

    [js:I'm not even remotely close to suggesting that. Not only can such a conclusion not be legitimately extrapolated from the study, but the facts of the study themselves (as summarized above) contradict it. Note that the reverse priming effect for slogans swings back to a regular priming effect as soon as subjects are focused on the creativity of the ad. So it would appear that it's pretty easy to divert attention away from the persuasive nature of the message. This seems to line up quite readily with my own observations of advertising practices over time: you hardly ever see the type of TV commercials that used to be common in the 1950s, in which a company spokesperson earnestly addresses the audience while extolling the virtues of the product. Nowadays ads tend to masquerade heavily as entertainment, which I'm guessing could have pretty disarming effects. Consumer resistance is a well-known problem for advertisers, and one they spend a good bit of time trying to subvert, often with great success. For an inside-the-industry view, you could have a look at Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum's book Under the Radar. It likely has excellent fodder for additional experimental manipulations that could serve as variants of the Laran et al. study. (Alas, I don't get free stuff from Bond and Kirshenbaum either.)]

  7. Information Overload 2011-08-07 « said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    […] Not so gullible after allInteresting piece about psychological studies on how we react to advertising logos and slogans. […]

  8. Logos > Slogans? « OZA Files said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    […] can read two different accounts of this research here and […]

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